CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of Against Love: A Polemic. By Laura Kipnis.

Nov 29, 2003

Pantheon, 2003.

“Hell is other people,” existentialist Jean Paul Sartre once said. That about summarises the philosophy of Laura Kipnis. Her book offers a very jaundiced and bitter look at marriage in particular and relationships in general.

While acknowledging that there may in fact be some good marriages out there, somewhere, her main thesis is that marriage is bad for people. Marriage takes nice people and turns them into “petty dictators and household tyrants”. All that marriage seems to do, according to the Chicago academic, is smother people with tons of rules and regulations and restrictions.

In fact, in her book she spends page after page providing a list of answers to the question, “What can’t you do because you’re in a couple?” She and a research assistant jotted down hundreds of answers, such as, you can’t be a slob, you can’t go to parties alone, you can’t leave the bathroom door open, you can’t leave the dishes for later, you can’t take risks, you can’t watch porn, you can’t smoke pot, you can’t make crumbs without wiping them up, etc. On and on it goes. It makes marriage sound like a comfortable concentration camp, to use Betty Friedan’s words.

She also speaks of that “mantra of a failing relationship: ‘Good marriages take work!’” She says we use “the rhetoric of the factory” when discussing marriage and asks, “Who, after spending all day on the job, wants to come home and work some more?” Marriage, says our expert, lures people into “conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desires”.

But wait, there’s more; the wrecking ball continues: Marriage is a social institution devoted to maximising submission and minimising freedom, she says.

Not surprisingly, given such a grim and black portrait of marriage, Kipnis says “perhaps rising divorce rates are not such bad news”. Indeed, given her version of events, a divorce ranks with the liberation of Dachau or being set free from a heroin addiction.

One is left with a lot of questions after reading such remarks. The first question that obviously comes to mind is: Is she now married or has she ever been? Given her jaded perspective, one suspects that she is not, or if she was, it was a pretty lousy affair.

But plenty of other questions come to mind, equally deserving of answers. Just what kind of world does Ms Kipnis think we should be living in? She has such a sour view of relationships and what they entail, and such a misguided notion of freedom and happiness, that it seems that the only kind of world she would be happy in is one where she is the only member. She could be quite happy in the company of one, but throw in just one more person, and life degenerates into bondage and misery. One is reminded of the quip by Groucho Marks: “I wouldn’t belong to any club that had me as a member”.

Given that she is a social theorist, this does not say much for society. Indeed, the only kind of social theory she seems to approve of is anti-social, that is, anarchy. Anarchists hate all rules and cumbersome relationships. The trouble is, to keep anarchists happy, one would need to find separate planets for each and everyone, in order for them to fully enjoy life.

Ms Kipnis bemoans the fact that relationships take work to succeed. Of course they do. Everything that is of value in life takes some effort and work. Nothing comes easy that is worth while. The only thing that is totally effortless is decay and deterioration. It doesn’t take a lot of effort for wood to rot, for cars to rust, or for weeds to spring up. Ask any householder. Nor does it take much effort for relationships to fall apart and for marriages to collapse. All one has to do is resort to a purely selfish and self-centered lifestyle, and the relationship will collapse quick-smart.

Thus Ms Kipnis cannot have it both ways. If she wants any kind of social fabric or communal structure, that is going to involve some give and take, some deferral of self-gratification, some compromise, some self-sacrifice, and some humility. All relationships require that. All societies require that. All workplaces require that. I am not aware of any successfully-functioning social institution in which a lot of effort in limiting one’s selfish ambitions and desires is not called for.

Marriage is humankind’s “first society,” John Locke once said. Because marriage and family are really mini-societies, if we cannot establish cooperation, unity and harmony in the home, we will never see these virtues in society. That is why marriage and family are so important. They take essentially selfish, me-first individuals, and form them into a working and efficient social unit. Without the taming of rugged individuals in the family, no society can expect to last.

But we live in an age that demands instant self-gratification, that values isolated autonomy and individualism above all else, and that mocks and scorns any concern for the common good. Is it any wonder then that families are fracturing and communities are crumbling? And as long as we have folk like Ms Kipnis continuing to undermine everything that is required to make any kind of social relationship work, be it home, the workplace, or democracy, we can only expect to see more shattered societies and alienated individuals.

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